Superstar chef James Noble seeks solace in sustainability
Chef James Noble is a 47 year-old larger-than-life, ball of manic energy. It’s 10am, the heat’s been serious for a while, and I’m having a coronary just watching him assault the red clay with his ancient hoe as he demonstrates the physical effort entailed in his passion.
“I have to get this row of sunflowers in today,’ he pants. And smiles.
A picture of health and wellness, Noble has enjoyed an illustrious career. He’s not only worked in Michelin-starred restaurants, but has also been a chef to the stars (Mick Jagger’s personal chef for four years, but that’s not important right now), a Thai TV celebrity chef, as well as a restaurateur and hotelier (most recently with the Alennta Hua Hin Resort and Spa, although they parted ways back in 2015).
These days, however, he’s primarily a zealous organic farmer. As such, you’d expect him to have some advice on how to eat healthily and live well and, as it turns out, he does—quite a lot actually.
James is a man on a mission, and Bangkok hotels like the Radisson Blu and the Grand Hyatt Erawan, along with a growing list of the city’s most celebrated restaurants—which currently includes Surface, Gaa, Canvas, J’Aime by Jean-Michel Lorain, Indus, Gaggan, Sühring, and Freebird—can’t get enough of his locally grown produce. It’s a selection of organic edibles that features all the obvious choices, as well as less obvious ones such as edible flowers and an entire range of exotic pickles.
Quince restaurant actually has its own dedicated greenhouse (one of four, which the chef refers to as “tunnels”) on Noble’s two rai organic farm, which is located a stone’s throw from the coast in idyllic Pak Nam Pran, in Thailand’s Prachuap Khiri Khan province. Quince instructs him as to what they want grown—and when—which dovetails perfectly with his organic ethos.
Investing in the future and sustainability are two of the keys to James’ credo. His farm is boutique in name, size, and produce, and obviously uses no GMO products. James and his wife May—along with some locals—sow, grow, and harvest everything by hand. No machinery is used and the water system is solar powered. Their mission includes reducing their carbon footprint by supplying locally grown “imported products”, and providing fresh, healthy produce at affordable prices. The aim is to improve the health and wellness of both people and planet.
“Why import something when you can grow it yourself?” asks James rhetorically.
This stance against importation involves reaching out to people and finding out what they specifically want, and growing it for them—whether “they” are hotels, restaurants, chefs, or just people who’ve heard the word and want to eat more healthily. A good example of this reaching out is the stage-four cancer sufferer at whose request James is specifically growing Hong Kong kale, dandelions, purple flowering garlic, and mulberries.
Back on the farm, the need for pesticides is avoided in part by growing lemongrass, another example of the farm’s over-riding sustainability culture. It’s not only a popular and important ingredient in many famous Thai dishes, it also keeps all the bugs away.
“We work in the field from 6 until 10am, and then from 4 to 7pm, before the cobras and all the other wildlife come out looking for water,” James says with a mischevious grin. “And Wednesday through Friday we deliver in and around Bangkok.”
He goes on to explain about his ‘Guerilla Gardening’ initiative. Once every three months, he and a group of like-minded health and wellness nuts get “blacked up”, don balaclavas and—sometime after midnight—head out into the streets of Bangkok to randomly plant seeds in public places. “Food for the future” he adds with another mischevious grin. Those interested in participating can find details by checking the Boutique Farmers website, and all participants receive a Boutique Farmers t-shirt, that proudly displays the logo and slogan that brings yet another sardonic smile to James’ face: “Putting the F back in chef”.
The farm also offers what James calls a “rewarding vacation”. Clients are welcome to visit, stay for a day or two, and take part in the running of the farm. For city dwellers in particular it’s a chance to breathe fresh air, eat healthy food and, after a hard day’s physical graft, get a really good night’s sleep.
Addressing the bigger picture, I asked James about the overall organic situation and sustainability movement in Thailand.
“Essentially it’s non-existent,” he remarks. “There’s no soil association anywhere in Asia, so nothing can technically be termed “organic”. Of course, a lot is organic in principal and practice, but it’s not regulated in any way, so who really knows? But if you grow it yourself, obviously you know, and at the very least you’re taking back control of what you eat.”
As the obesity epidemic spreads across the globe, and healthy eating options seem harder than ever to find, elements of the organic philosophy are starting to be deployed in mainstream agriculture across the world. The 2nd highest cause of death in Thailand is diabetes, and one of the keys to health and wellness is a varied and balanced diet. On this, James’ advice is simple: “Don’t let your body get used to any one food or food-type or group. Check your blood type and try a blood-group diet. Ask yourself ‘What do I need?’ and ‘How much do I need?’ In short, live simply and humbly.”
The visible proof of James’ successful recipe for health and wellness is best encapsulated in his effervescent, precociously intelligent 3-year-old daughter Nancy, a tall-for-her-age bundle of energy and inquisitiveness. Up and out working (and playing, she is just 3 after all) in the fields at dawn with the rest of the family, she’s already put in a few hours of healthy activity before heading off to school.
While everyone can’t live on an organic farm with all the health benefits that such a life provides, there are still many ways to give your green thumb a workout. Thailand’s wonderful climate is just the thing for rooftop gardens—another of James’ many pet projects—and are an excellent way for city residents to reap the benefits of gardening (which is beneficial to both one’s physical and mental health). So… what are you waiting for? Why not start your own garden, you’ll soon be reaping the rewards of what you’ve sown.
Chef James Noble’s farm, located about a 45-minute drive south of Hua Hin, is open to the public every Saturday (overnight stays are by appointment only). On July 29th an on-site restaurant will be launched, open Saturdays only and restricted to 30 people max. To celebrate the opening, a number of Bangkok’s top chefs will join James to cook and camp, with each chef preparing a special dish. Tickets for this event are B500 each (see website for details). Work is also underway on a ‘sustainable living’ hotel—the 56 room Modeena—situated on the balmy beachfront less than a minute’s drive from Pak Nam Pran. It’s a project he hopes to bring to fruition in early 2018.
By Gary Anthony Rutland